For seasoned volunteers and local nonprofits alike, the Ignatian Volunteer Corps is a match made in heaven.
This summer, Catholic Philly ran an article I wrote about IVC’s Philadelphia/South Jersey Chapter; this week, the Jesuits of Canada and the US posted my article about IVC nationwide–including IVC’s new virtual community. Enjoy!
It’s been a whole year, friends! One year ago today, I locked the door of Gwynedd Mercy University’s campus ministry center, walked through the empty parking lot, and drove away into my new life.
I knew it would take me at least a year to get my bearings, and that I had to resist the impulse to fill my calendar with everything that raised its hand first. For years, I had proclaimed that I wanted to be a “freelance me,” and now I was actually doing it. But what did “it” look like, exactly? The joy and terror of a freelance existence are intertwined: it’s the fine line between getting to decide and having to decide what to do with your day / week / year / one wild and precious life. (Thank you, Mary Oliver.)
Se hace camino al andar, wrote the Spanish poet Antonio Machado. The path is made by walking. As I have walked this unfolding path, a delightful companion on the journey has been my godson, Jeff Civillico.
We are the bookends of our family—the oldest and youngest of seven cousins, both holding degrees in theology from Jesuit universities. (Fun fact: I’m often described as “profound—and surprisingly funny,” while Jeff is precisely the opposite.) Jeff’s career has always been a freelance adventure, so he has been both an inspiration and guide for me this year. With gratitude, I’m delighted to share his story with you.
As I mentioned, Jeff and I both have undergraduate degrees in theology—Saint Joe’s for me, Georgetown for him—but there our stories diverge. I became a campus minister, spiritual writer, and retreat facilitator; Jeff became a professional juggler, Vegas headliner, and keynote speaker. (Bonus: the next time someone asks, “What can you do with a degree in theology?” you have a whole new answer!)
Jeff’s passion for entertainment predated his interest in theology, but since there was no major for what he wanted to do, he figured he might as well study something that interested him. Arriving at Georgetown just days before 9/11, he was drawn to learn more about world religions, which led to a concentration in Religion and Culture. (See, I told you he was surprisingly profound!)
Jeff’s career path had already taken him from juggling in his parents’ living room to performing at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and Williamsburg’s Busch Gardens; a couple summers of cruise ship gigs during college led to a couple years of Disney World gigs after graduation. Then the bright lights of the Vegas strip beckoned, and Jeff got his own show: Comedy in Action. For many performers, that would be the “BOOM – Made It!” moment. For Jeff, however, it was simply a new beginning, as he constantly strives to expand and integrate his life’s work. “A goal achieved,” he likes to say, “is just your next starting point.”
Jeff had a ten-year run doing family-friendly comedy in various Caesars Entertainment venues, at one point performing as many as ten shows a week. By 2019, however, he was down to just one—Wednesday evenings at the Paris—by his own choice. Though wanting to keep a foothold on the strip, he needed to free up time for new creative ventures: from guest-hosting the local ABC affiliate’s “Morning Blend” and serving as spokesperson for the Las Vegas Natural History Museum to giving keynote speeches and emceeing large corporate gatherings in cities across the country and around the world.
Meanwhile, there was an ambitious charitable endeavor taking shape in Jeff’s imagination. Recognizing that Vegas is home to a community of generous performers, in 2011 he founded Win-Win Entertainment, a non-profit that enables entertainers, athletes, and other celebrities to share their time with children in need. Thanks to Jeff’s professional network, in 2017 Win-Win began to expand, starting with Minneapolis then Salt Lake City, Orlando, San Francisco, and more. They are in a dozen cities nationwide now—and still growing.
Being founder and CEO of a non-profit may not be what gets Jeff the most attention, but it is, by far, his most satisfying work. (It’s also another intriguing thing one can do with a degree in theology!)
So, what takes a person from juggling for spare change at the Inner Harbor to running a national non-profit and performing around the world? That feels like such an amazing leap, one that can’t be accounted for by the simple passage of time. Here’s the secret: it wasn’t a leap at all. Instead, Jeff credits what he calls The Power of the Pivot.
In a keynote address by the same title, he explains it this way: “A pivot is a small change, made with one foot on the ground, that forces you to focus on your next step.” This is a perfect description of what Jeff has done in his career. He has made a series of pivots:
Living room to Inner Harbor to Busch Gardens to Disney World to Vegas
Juggling to clean comedy to keynote speeches to emcee work
Volunteering personally to match-making local volunteers to establishing a national volunteer network
A pivot is a small change, made with one foot on the ground, that forces you to focus on your next step.
Through each change, Jeff has kept one foot on the ground and intentionally pivoted in the direction he wanted to go.
The coronavirus crisis hit the entertainment industry hard. Everything Jeff did—as a performer and a philanthropist—was based on personal presence and audience interaction. In a heartbeat, venues were closed, events were cancelled, and the last thing anyone wanted in a children’s hospital was a non-essential stranger walking from room to room just for fun!
Fortunately, Jeff already knew all about the pivot. To help corporations hold successful meetings in the dreaded Zoom format, he branded himself as “your virtual host,” using his nimble wit and contagious energy to emcee more than 60 corporate, charitable, and educational gatherings since March.
For Win-Win, Jeff had begun to work on the idea of “virtual visits” even before the coronavirus era. When the shutdown hit, again he pivoted quickly; Win-Win is now able to bring smiles to kids who really need them in 23 programs nationwide, through customized performances on in-house television channels.
To onlookers, it might seem as though Jeff made this leap to virtual venues effortlessly. But the secret, again, is that it wasn’t a leap at all. Jeff kept one foot on the ground of his mission—the WHY behind the WHAT of all his endeavors—and pivoted to a new HOW. (Thank you, Simon Sinek.)
And here, our disparate paths begin to converge. I still remember how my phone wouldn’t stop buzzing on the evening of March 12, as parishes and groups called to cancel their Lenten retreats and my event calendar collapsed like a blown tire. At that point, I’m not sure I’d even heard of Zoom; now I’m giving Zoom retreats for St. Placid Priory, all the way across the country in Lacey, Washington. Although I miss being in person, I am moved to be able to touch people’s hearts at a distance; during my first Zoom retreat, participants “came” from as far away as San Diego and Scotland. Maybe you can join me for the next one: Does Everything Happen for a Reason?Tuesday, August 25 at 12:30 p.m. Eastern.
As we chatted about that commonality, Jeff observed that we offer two things people are craving in these very strange times: entertainment and spiritual sustenance . . . the funny and the profound; each of us has pivoted to continue meeting those needs.
Pivoting is not just about changing external tactics, Jeff suggests. It’s also about the shifts in attitude and mindset that we need in order to move forward in changing times. This is similar to one of the key points in a retreat I first developed in January, called Take Nothing for the Journey? Packing for the Unknown. I suggested that, as we “pack” for an unknown future (which is to say, every day we get out of bed in the morning), we need to let go of assumptions about the way things have to be, and hold onto qualities like flexibility, curiosity, patience, and a good sense of humor. This is true more than ever in the coronavirus era.
One of the things Jeff and I have marveled at is that he was talking about the power of the pivot and I was talking about packing for the unknown before the pandemic broke over our collective heads. While it’s tempting to pride ourselves on having been prescient, the fortunate timing simply affirms our shared message: everything we need to get through this long season of uncertainty is already inside us.
Whatever challenge you are facing, I pray that you are able to keep one foot on the ground, fortify yourself with a useful mindset, let go of what is not essential, and focus on your next step. Together, we can pivot our way to what’s next.
May your ordinary (and far-from ordinary) days be extraordinarily blessed!
Jeff Civillico recently celebrated a 10-year run on the Las Vegas Strip as a Headliner with Caesars Entertainment at the iconic hotel properties The LINQ, The Flamingo, and The Paris. His clean, family-friendly “Comedy in Action” show remains highly acclaimed: voted “Best of Las Vegas” three years in a row by the Las Vegas Review Journal, named “Entertainer of the Year” by Vegas Inc, and honored by his fans with a 5-star rating on Yelp, Ticketmaster, and Google. Jeff now takes his renowned clean comedy show to performing arts centers and major corporate events and conferences nationwide. He also serves as a Host and Keynote Speaker. When Jeff is not Hosting, Entertaining, or Speaking on-stage or on-camera, he is focused on the continued expansion and development of his national 501c3 nonprofit Win-Win Entertainment. Win-Win Entertainment brings smiles to children who really need them in hospitals and foster homes through in-person and virtual visits from performers, athletes, and celebrities.
My heart goes out to the people in that upper room in the first chapter of Acts. Once upon a time, they had been capable fishermen, efficient tax collectors, competent homemakers, and women of means. After meeting Jesus and being swept into his company, they’d had a crash course in discipleship, but they were still a ragtag bunch. There were the brothers who had quarreled over who was greater, the woman from whom seven demons had gone out, the gaggle who always needed the parables explained, and that blustery fellow who spent an awful lot of time with his sandal in his mouth. Then tragedy struck, followed by mystery. And now they were expected to be . . . what? His “witnesses to the ends of the earth?” What did that even mean?
Yet on Pentecost day, Scripture says, devout Jews from every nation under heaven heard them speaking in their own tongues of the mighty acts of God. The disciples had spent most of their lives knowing how to do one thing, and then they learned to do something else entirely, and then the Holy Spirit came upon them, and then they changed the world.
If their transformation seems dizzying, it might help to peek back into the upper room. Our mental image of that place may be DaVinci’s table-for-thirteen, but Luke tells us there were actually some one hundred and twenty persons gathered there. What did they do in those ten days between Ascension and Pentecost? Two things we know: they devoted themselves to prayer, and they discerned who had the right gifts for the work ahead, adding Matthias to the Eleven in place of Judas. Although they had no idea what would happen next, they stayed together, they prayed, and they did what they could until the Holy Spirit enabled them to do far more.
That’s a reasonable mandate for us during this Coronavirus crisis. Stay together (at least in mind and heart). Pray. Discern what you can do. Wait for the Holy Spirit.
What has impressed me most about this time of shutdown is how people are learning to do things they never did before: pastors live-streaming Mass in near-empty churches; classroom teachers giving Zoom lessons from their kitchens; reporters broadcasting from their tidied-up dens. Much of this is made possible by technology, of course, enabling the self-quarantined to work from home, video chat with grandchildren, even play board games online with friends. A colleague of mine recently observed that, if this had happened just a decade ago, the entire school year would have been a wash. No graduations, no promotions to the next grade: just one giant do-over.
However, what is intriguing right now not just about the technology. I am so touched by the way people are rummaging around in their hearts and their skill sets, bringing forth whatever is useful for the need at hand. Makers of quilts are churning out masks. Performers are finding new ways of getting their art into the world. Distributors who used to move food from farms to fancy restaurants are packing boxes for hungry families instead. Of course, these pivots could be short-term strategies—designed to maintain an income stream or a sense of purpose—yet I believe that some of these new endeavors actually hold the seeds of future promise.
And it’s not just about what people are doing, of course; it’s also—and more importantly—about the transformation happening within. This season has been profoundly jarring, ripping away so much that we used to take for granted. Perhaps you are on the front lines of the crisis, sacrificing safety at work, peace at home, or financial security. Perhaps you are grieving the loss of someone dear. Or perhaps you are among the lucky ones: riding it out quietly, but still having to let go of plans, assumptions, and certainties. Here you are; here we all are, learning to abide in the unknown.
We are not unlike those early disciples: staying connected; praying in new ways; discerning next steps and waiting for the Holy Spirit to let us out of the room.
In his book The Holy Longing, Ronald Rolheiser describes the tasks required for each stage of the paschal cycle (not only in the Bible, but in the countless dyings and risings of our own lives). According to Rolheiser, the work from Ascension to Pentecost is this: let the past ascend and bless you; receive the spirit for the life you are already living.
We have begun to live into something new, here in the upper room of our quarantine. It is not clear how much the Coronavirus crisis will yet ask of us, but this has gone on far too long to be just a blip on the radar screen, a ridiculous inconvenience we’ll tell stories about someday. Now is the time to settle in, to pay attention, to notice the changes within and without.
How might the Holy Spirit be transforming you?
I was honored to write this reflection as part of the Ignatian Volunteer Corps’ Ascension to Pentecost series, featuring contributions by Fr. Jim Martin, Dan Schutte, and more. If you are not familiar with IVC, check them out: Experience Making a Difference!
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Today’s post is an homage to anyone who works with children.
Last Wednesday evening, my Alternative Spring Break team spent about 90 minutes doing after-dinner childcare at Bethany House, an emergency shelter for women and children in Cincinnati. We do it every year. It’s always challenging, but this year was aggravated by an unexpected toy donation that arrived just as dinner was ending: dozens of light-up flying discs. (The kind where you pull a string on the handle, and the thing goes sailing across the room.)
I don’t know what the (presumably well-intentioned) donors were thinking. Did they imagine that these kids would be able to play with them in a park or on the beach some moonlit evening? Did they envision for one moment what a dozen kids in two small basement rooms would do with spinning, careening, light-up toys? Any preconceived notions my college students had about actually engaging with the children went out the (non-existent) window, as we spent the whole night trying to keep our charges from injuring themselves or one another as they shrieked, ran, and launched the practically-weaponized toys at one another and at us. Oh, and cried when they broke. And accused one another of stealing the unbroken ones. And cried some more.
We experienced a stark contrast the next morning, as we kept company with the kindergarten class at Corryville Catholic Elementary School. Those kids were just as squirmy and excitable as the ones at the shelter, of course. But the difference was in the relationship. We didn’t know the Bethany kids, and they didn’t know anything about us except that they were never going to see us again. The Corryville teachers, on the other hand, knew the kindergarteners by name, knew their quirks and interests, and had gained their trust, so they were able to personalize their approach to even the crowd-control aspects of education. We watched twenty-some five year-olds sit cross-legged, hands in laps, and read along with a Dr. Seuss book on the smartboard. Amazing!
I do not draw this contrast to be critical of Bethany House. The staff there is busy trying to attend to their residents’ most basic needs—literally, food and shelter—while helping women coming out of chaotic living situations to find some stable ground for themselves and their families. The temporary nature of emergency shelter rules out the kind of careful attention that a kindergarten classroom allows.
But children desperately need such careful attention. It’s not my gift (I work with college students for a reason), but I am in awe of anyone who possesses it. The heroic patience and endless self-giving that good teachers and other childcare workers demonstrate deserves to be praised–and compensated–as the foundational work of tomorrow’s society.
I’m home from Cincinnati now, heading back to work in the morning. I will resume my meetings, and project work, and to-do lists. But I will carry the images of those Bethany House children in my heart, praying that, when this rocky transition is complete, they will find themselves in a place where they are seen, known and loved by the many grownups in their lives, just like the little ones at Corryville.
There is another group of children on my mind., this one much closer to home. On April 7, our Mercy honor society (Sigma Phi Sigma) is throwing a baby shower for new and expectant moms served by Catholic Social Services in Norristown. We will decorate, and serve food, and make a fuss, and send them off with useful gifts. If you would like to help, check out this Amazon wish list for things like diapers, wipes, onesies, blankets, etc. All items will ship straight to Campus Ministry at Gwynedd Mercy University. Just remember, the shower is on April 7th so we need things ASAP!
If your daily life or chosen work immerses you in the lives of little children, God bless you. Thank you for everything you do. I say it every week, but I say it with extreme fervor in your regard:
May each of your ordinary days be extraordinarily blessed!
I do love the story that appears in this chapter of Finding God in Ordinary Time. I’ve been telling it for years, in the wake of a particularly moving encounter on an Alternative Spring Break experience in Savannah, Georgia in 2009. Since Gwynedd Mercy’s own ASB teams just started their 2018 adventure, it seemed like a good time to post it. To them I say: May each of you find–and remember–your Rose!
Chapter 8: Finding God in a Flowered Housedress
I have called you by name: you are mine. — Isaiah 43:1
Rose was scary. And she was scared.
She hovered in her bedroom doorway in a flowered, old-lady housedress and ratty slippers, her chopped-off hair looking like it had been styled in an asylum. Eyes full of suspicion, she peered anxiously at the do-gooders who had come to mess up her apartment. But it was that or eviction.
I was the head do-gooder, sent by Rose’s social worker along with four of my students as part of an alternative spring break service experience. The apartment had descended into filth and chaos, we’d been told, since Rose’s “boyfriend” had been transferred into assisted living. The landlord was ready to bounce her, so it was our job to make the place habitable—and not just for the many roaches scurrying through the cabinets.
I was so proud of my students that day. They donned gloves and tackled that awful kitchen with good cheer, emptying cabinets, throwing out contaminated food, and washing every sticky surface. I had the far easier task of organizing the living room: tossing discarded food wrappers, newspapers, and tissues; organizing anything that looked worth keeping; dusting everything I could get my hands on. There weren’t as many roaches to be alarmed by, but there was Rose, watching me with alarm. She didn’t respond to any overtures so I went about my business quietly under her apprehensive gaze.
How is this her life? I found myself wondering. Having been blessed with what I considered a full and meaningful life, overflowing with friends and work, travel and adventures, I was increasingly distressed by the emptiness of this poor woman’s existence.
And then I found it. Hidden among TV Guides and junk mail was a birthday card, the kind you get at a dollar store. I peeked inside. My darling Rose, someone had written, I will always love you. — your Bill
My eyes welled up, and I gently placed the card in a prominent position on her freshly dusted end table. To me she had seemed like a pathetic creature, yet she was someone’s darling Rose. She was a social worker’s challenging case, a landlord’s problem tenant, and our Tuesday project, yet a man named Bill had remembered her birthday and had selected, written, and mailed this card with its tender message.
I do believe that we are all precious in the eyes of God. But I was humbled, that day, to realize that a person I could barely bring myself to look at was precious in the eyes of another human being as well—one who had penned the words we all long to hear.
Who do you find difficult to look at, never mind love? Try to imagine them precious in the eyes of God, and even in the eyes of another human being. What shifts inside you?
May each of your ordinary days be extraordinarily blessed.
Last Thursday I had the privilege of facilitating a retreat for members of the Ignatian Volunteer Corps / Baltimore region. IVC volunteers are people age “50 or better” (love it!) who serve 1-2 days a week with a partner agency, using their considerable talents to care for individuals who have slipped through society’s safety net. Their slogan is “Experience Making a Difference,” and I certainly experienced that difference myself in the course of our day together. What a delightful, engaged and engaging group of people, seasoned enough to offer wisdom, yet beautifully open to new questions.
We spent the afternoon working with Part Two of my book Finding God in Ordinary Time. Called Messengers of Grace, Part Two presents surprising encounters with strangers as one of the terrains in which we can spot the presence of God, hidden in plain sight. As you may know, I’ve decided to give faithful blog readers a peek into my book each Sunday in winter Ordinary Time. So with gratitude to the IVC volunteers whom I no longer call strangers, this week I want to share my introduction to Part Two.
Part Two Messengers of Grace
People are beautiful, courageous, and inspiring, but we are also messy, complicated, and fallible.
And yet we are dear to God’s heart. In Genesis—the first book of both the Jewish Torah and the Christian Bible—we learn that all humanity is created in the image and likeness of God. The Qur’an teaches us that God (Allah) is “nearer to man than his jugular vein.” In Catholic Social Teaching, the dignity of each person is the first principle. Quakers affirm that there is “that of God in everyone.”
Ever wonder why so many religious traditions feel the need to point this out?
I love how my friend John puts it: every person we meet contains a revelation of God.
In Matthew 25, Jesus says that whatever we do for “the least of these,” we do for him. Who are these “least”? If we look at Jesus’ list (people who are hungry, thirsty, naked, or ill, those who are strangers or imprisoned), we will see that he clearly identified with those who are most vulnerable.
Sometimes vulnerability is attractive, and sometimes it is repellant, but it is always a place where, if we cock our heads at a certain angle, we can catch the message God wants us to hear.
Who has been a messenger of grace for you? Tell us your story in the “Leave a Reply” section below!
May each of your ordinary days be extraordinarily blessed.